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Fred Frith: Eleventh Hour

Chris May By

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A really lovely and absorbing double CD set which documents Fred Frith's growing fascination with and mastery of composition for strings, from "Lelekovice" in '90 to "Allegory" and "Fell" in '01. It's not remotely jazz, but it is very fine music indeed, and anyone with an interest in new music should find much to enjoy and be stimulated by within it. It's neither self-consciously conservatoire nor difficult music—resonances you'll catch include Shostakovitch, Heiner Goebbels, and the Necks, tunesmiths to a man—and while often tense and edgy it is also lyrical, vibrant and, yes, somehow serene.

Unfolding more or less chronologically, the album starts with String Quartet #1 ("Lelekovice"), an arresting thirty-minute suite in nine parts, all surging rhythmic vitality and unexpected bowed and plucked sonorities. It was used by the American choreographer Amanda Miller in her "My Father's Vertigo," made on Frankfurt Ballet in '91. Miller's work was one of many fashionable but indistinguishable neurosis-by-numbers modern ballets made in Europe at that time; Frith's score, though relentlessly tense and edgy, is never neurotic and works much better on its own.

If "Lelekovice" was a more than promising start to Frith's exploration of composition for strings, '97's "Tense Serenity," which follows, is noticeably more mature. Dropping Jennings' second violin and adding Dierksen's trombone, it's reminiscent at times of Goebbel's kinda jazz-informed soundscape "Red Run," with a similarly abrasive and ambiguous beauty. A gorgeous piece.

The second CD adds Frith's electric guitar to the string quartet, on "Allegory" and "Fell," and shows increasing maturity and assurance in his writing. It's not so busy now and is prepared to slow down and savor notes and their inter-relationships. Most of the time the guitar is unobtrusively integrated with the strings, except for occasional short rock-ish phrases on "Fell." In between these two pieces sits "Stick Figures," a seventeen-minute piece for multi-tracked electric guitars. Built round a recurring, quietly jangling midrange chord, which comes round every fifteen seconds or so, it's reminiscent of the Necks at the more expansive end of their wonderful thing. Broodingly dramatic and suspenseful, it's concerned with fine calibrations and painterly detail and the unhurried exploration of long drawn out textures.

From Henry Cow through Gavin Bryars, Brian Eno, Robert Wyatt, Material, and Massacre to Skeleton Crew and Que d'la Guele, to name but a few waysigns on the route, Frith continues to beguile and surprise.


Track Listing: Lelekovice (1990, for string quartet); Tense Serenity (1997, for string trio and trombone); Allegory (2001, for string quartet and electric guitar); Stick Figures (1990, for 6 guitars and 2 players); Fell (2001, for string quartet and electric guitar).

Personnel: Arditti String Quartet (Irvine Arditti, violin; Graeme Jennings, violin; Ralf Ehlers, viola; Rohan de Saram, cello); Fred Frith, electric guitar; William Winant, electric guitar; Uwe Dierksen, trombone.

Title: Eleventh Hour | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Winter & Winter

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